Q&A: Angela Kennedy, the Catholic school board trustee who changed her mind about sex ed
Our Six in the Six interview with the chair of the Toronto Catholic District School Board
Until recently, Toronto Catholic District School Board chair Angela Kennedy was one of the more prominent opponents of Ontario’s new sex ed curriculum. She even led an unsuccessful campaign to put off introducing the new material for a year. Then her 30-year-old son Brian, who happens to be a teacher, revealed that he had been sexually abused as a child and asked his mom to reconsider her position. Last week, she made it known publicly that she now supports the new lesson plan. We spoke with her about the importance of proper names for private parts and how it’s possible to be a Catholic and a sex ed crusader at the same time.
Until very recently, you were one of the more vocal opponents of the Ontario government’s new sex-ed curriculum. And then you learned your son Brian was a victim of childhood sexual assault. Can you describe the day you found out and how that changed your stance?
Brian took my husband and me out for lunch. He intended to tell us during lunch about the sexual abuse he experienced, but he wasn’t actually able to tell us until after we were finished. We were out in the parking lot and he just blurted it out: “I was sexually abused when I was 11, for a year. I’m okay. I’m getting therapy. More details to follow.”
I remember freezing on the spot. And then, of course, there were so many questions: Why did this happen? Who did this? Why did he keep this a secret for so long? Where did we go wrong? We were always really present with our kids. My husband worked at home, I only worked two days a week, I was involved in school, I was the driver to the soccer games and all of that. When Brian finally did share the whole story, I asked him what I could do. He said, “For one thing, you can embrace the sex ed curriculum.” He said that it might have made things better for him.
Specifically, how might the new sex ed curriculum have helped Brian?
For Brian, there was no opening to bring it up. Sex isn’t something we talked about at the table. Like, “Oh, by the way…” Children need to know the facts in order to be able to talk about sex, and Brian says he didn’t know those facts when he was growing up. He talks about the fact that he didn’t feel safe. There wasn’t a climate where there could be discussion around sexual health. He feels the sex ed curriculum will support an open and honest dialogue.
And how do you feel? It wasn’t so long ago you were fighting to keep words like “penis” and “vagina” out of the grade one classroom.
After Brian told me his story, I reflected on my previous position. I wasn’t objecting per se. I was saying we need to delay this. My main concern was the lack of consultation from the province. I’m a nurse, so I have never shied away from using the correct terms for body parts—but, being a leader in the Catholic community, I was uncomfortable. After talking to Brian, I thought, “I can’t be opposed to this, but I don’t want to give up my faith. There must be a way that I can do both.”
I read the curriculum again and, sure enough, I thought, “Yeah, I can support this.” Children are going to learn certain facts about sex and sexuality in school, and then parents are going to be responsible for bringing the cultural and religious aspects into their teaching.
In the past, you didn’t support Gay/Straight Alliances in Ontario high schools. Have you changed that position as well?
I wasn’t really opposed. It just came off that way [in an interview Kennedy did on Metro Morning in December of last year]. I remember after the interview my sons were saying, “Mom, you are not this person. You are not homophobic. You need to let people know the right story!” And I was thinking, “What are you boys all doing up at six o’clock in the morning?”
You had a lot of allies, both Catholic and otherwise, in the anti-sex-ed camp. Have you heard from any of those people?
Some people have emailed me and said things like, “Sorry about what happened to your son, but we need to talk.” I think a lot of other people are waiting to see me in person. One of the things that has been so great is all of the positive reactions I’ve received—phone calls, emails, people have approached me in the street. There’s no segue, they just want to talk about the sex curriculum.
What would you say to parents who continue to object?
I would say, read the curriculum. You will learn a lot and you will be able to have a conversation with your children. A lot of the opposition came because people were misguided. They think education about sexual health is going to lead to promiscuity. My son Brendan said that the Catholic church’s position is to abstain from sex before marriage, but it shouldn’t be to abstain from education. That’s true! That’s really it in a nutshell.